Reviews by Mike Russo

IF Comp 2004

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Gamlet, by Tomasz Pudlo

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A literary feat undermined by its puzzles, December 22, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2004

"Audacious" doesn't begin to do justice to Gamlet. Harry Potter by way of Portnoy's Complaint with a soupcon of Shakespeare; kabbala, pubescence, the luminous, somehow innocent attraction that sin holds for those just cresting adolescence; there's a lot to take in here, and the author's voice is bold and assured, weaving together the abstract and the vulgar to devastating effect. The writing is elliptical, content to take its time and draw the player into the world at its own pace. Themes and echoes are everywhere.

Frustratingly, though, this pregnant, compelling premise is swallowed up by overcomplicated puzzles which aren't sufficiently integrated into the game. Perhaps I'm just not clever enough at coming up with solutions, but it felt like important objects weren't always mentioned, and some of the puzzles seem to presume more knowledge and perspicacity than I could muster. I'm still not sure where the clock combination came from. As a result of the difficulty, I found myself forced to the walkthrough sooner than I would have liked, which broke the spell of immersion the game had been weaving up until that point; the fact that instead of evoking an "ah-ha!" the solutions left me wondering how I was supposed to come up with this stuff didn't help matters.

Worse than the difficulty, however, is the way that the puzzles become more and more contrived as the game progresses. Lighting a lamp, finding a hamster, raiding the kitchen; these are all reasonable actions, and a certain degree of spelunking in the PC's father's study makes sense given the premise, as well. But too quickly, the game falls prey to increasingly arbitrary puzzles, with little connection to the story beyond the necessity of padding the length. The game very much lost me once I entered the elevator; this new, fantastic world felt colorless and generic compared to the dim, claustrophobic house below. There's a symbolic logic which continues to work even here, and the prose continues to be strong, but ultimately the latter portions of the game are a disappointment.

Overall, Gamlet perhaps tries to do too much; cramming so much characterization and puzzling together is a tricky business, and the game might have been better served by privileging one over the other. As it is, its skewed, distinctive vibe makes it one of this year's standouts, but its flaws do far too much to weigh it down.

Sting of the Wasp, by Jason Devlin

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Wickedly fun, December 1, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2004

(This is a repost of a review I wrote on the IF newsgroups right after the 2004 Comp)

If ever a game were a guilty pleasure, Sting of the Wasp would be it; the overall plot is pure soap-opera, the NPC interactions are all about eking out the maximum amount of cattiness, and the puzzles derive their enjoyment value from pure spite -- all of which is to say that it hits its design goals exactly. Guiding the super-snob player character on a rampage through a high-end country club inhabited by people even more deserving of comeuppance than you do is entertaining on its own, and it's all the more so when combined with the viciously funny descriptions and withering repartee on offer.

Indeed, the game's great success is in setting the mood. Part of this is due to the author's strong writing skills there are some laugh-out-loud moments, such as the PC's observation that a half-eaten bowl of salad bespeaks some rival's lack of willpower in sticking to her diet, and the dialogue is razor sharp but much of the heavy lifting is done by the robust world simulation. NPCs will remark on the items you're carrying around, smells are implemented, and the scenery is both dense and well-described.

This very much reinforces the sense of immersion, but it's the puzzles which really nail the feel. Without exception, every puzzle you solve winds up advantaging you at somebody else's expense, whether it's through property damage, blackmail, exploiting a dangerous allergy, or just destroying some poor old lady's hair. The PC goes about her wicked business with flair and panache, and it's hard not to cackle at her exploits as long as one isn't encumbered by too many moral objections (which isn't hard in a farce this enjoyable).

There are a few flaws I think there's a bug with the exit descriptions on the dining terrace, and the social comment is a bit too easy to be worth anything other than a few cheap laughs but they do little to detract from the overall experience. The author knew exactly what he was going for, and the prose, puzzles, and implementation all work together flawlessly to convey his caustic vision.

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